WHEELER WINS BASSFEST
Story by Matt Pangrac and Dave Rush – Photos by Dave Rush
Dayton, TN – Going into BASSFest this week on Lake Chickamauga, one of the big questions was how much of an impact the 33 additional anglers from the Bassmaster Opens would play in the outcome of the tournament.
On the surface, the Open anglers struggled, as just eight of the 33 made the Top 60 cut to fish on Saturday on Chickamauga and earn a guaranteed payday of at least $10,000. The eventual tournament winner, however, would come from the Open ranks and lead the tournament for the final three days of competition on Chickamauga.
23-year-old Jacob Wheeler is no stranger to the spotlight. After winning the BFL All-American in 2011, the FLW Tour standout, who qualified for BASSFest with a 13th place finish in the 2013 Bassmaster Northern Open point standings, won the Forrest Wood Cup the following year in 2012 and narrowly missed repeating in 2013 when he finished in 2nd place at the Cup to Randall Tharp.
With nearly $900,000 in career earnings between FLW and B.A.S.S. competition going into the week, intimidation wasn’t a factor for Wheeler on Chickamauga, especially when you consider the fact that despite being from Indiana, he had been on Chickamauga over a dozen times in the past several years.
After opening up a lead of over 7-pounds on Thursday, Wheeler made things interesting on Saturday when he came to the scales with only four bass and saw his lead shrink to less than 2-pounds over his closest competitor, Matt Herren.
While it appeared as though Wheeler’s pattern was falling apart, he stated that Saturday’s results were atypical due to the fact that he actually avoided fishing some of his best water in an attempt to save it for Sunday’s finale.
The bold move paid off, as Wheeler crossed the BASSFest stage with a limit weighing 22-1 on Sunday to claim the title with a total weight of 90-6.
With the victory, Wheeler earned $125,000 and a spot in the 2015 Bassmaster Classic next February on Lake Hartwell – a fishery where he posted a Top 20 finish in FLW Tour competition in early March of this year.
Kevin VanDam brought in the heaviest limit on Sunday weighing 23-8, but it wasn’t enough to overtake Wheeler and he finished in 2nd place with a total weight of 84-12.
Matt Herren finished in 3rd with 83-15, and Gerald Swindle continued his hot streak with his second consecutive Top 5 finish in Elite Series competition by finishing in 4th place with 74-10.
Brett Hite rounded out the Top 5 with a limit weighing 17-0 on Sunday to boost his final weight to 71-5.
In total, nine out of the 12 anglers crossed the BASSFest stage with a five bass limit on Sunday, and two out of the 12 broke the 20-pound mark.
Tournament: Bassmaster Elite Series - BASSFest
Location: Lake Chickamauga – Dayton, Tennessee
Champion: Jacob Wheeler (22-6, 29-13, 16-2, 22-1: 90-6)
2nd Place: Kevin VanDam (84-12)
Total weight separating 1st from 12th Place: 28-12
1st Place: Jacob Wheeler (22-6, 29-13, 16-2, 22-1: 90-6)
Wheeler on his initial reaction to winning:
“I feel unbelievable right now. This is beyond words. Chickamauga Lake and Dayton, Tennessee, I fish here all the time, and to be able to win in front of a lot of my best friends and a lot of my family that I have on Father’s Day and have my dad out there - it’s unbelievable.
“Everybody came out for this thing and this was a huge event. To be the first ever BASSFest champion and win my first ever Elite Series event…these guys are the best in the world, and to have unbelievable days like I had, the stars lined up for me this week and I couldn’t be more humbled."
Wheeler on earning a spot in the 2015 Bassmaster Classic:
“Qualifying for the Classic is the event that you want to qualify for in your career, and I never have. That was one thing that when I was 10-years-old, I knew that I wanted to qualify for the Classic and try to win the Classic.”
Wheeler on where this week’s BASSFest victory ranks in comparison to his 2011 BFL All-American victory and 2012 Forrest Wood Cup victory:
“I would say that this win is number two, without a doubt. The first major event (BFL All-American), I went from basically having $300 in my bank account to having $100,000 and that allowed me to fish professionally. That one has been the biggest thing to me and I would never have had this opportunity without it.”
Wheeler on entering the final day with Matt Herren less than 2-pounds behind and Kevin VanDam in 3rd place:
“You have to always worry about Kevin, but I tried to put that in the back of my mind. Of course you’re going to think about Kevin because this guy has won so many events and he’s the king of bass fishing. He’s disappointed when he gets a Top 10 in points. His expectations are so high that he’s always planning on winning. You know that you did something really special if you can beat him.”
Wheeler on his primary patterns:
“All of (my techniques) were so key this week. I probably caught the majority of them on a swimbait, and that was a big key this week. I also caught some really big fish on a jig and I caught a few fish on a worm that I really needed on the third day when things were getting tough.
“On the first day, something that was really key for me was that they drew a lot of current. There was a lot of wind and current and I caught three key fish on a Rapala DT20. They wouldn’t bite a crankbait all week long, but when those conditions set up, I got one fired up on a swimbait and actually threw the crankbait in there and caught fish back-to-back-to-back. You could get that crankbait in there and catch them a lot more quickly than you could on the swimbait. On that first day, that flurry was pretty much my day. I caught four fish off that place and you have to capitalize on the opportunities.”
Wheeler on avoiding one of his primary areas on Saturday in order to save it for Sunday:
“The spot that I didn’t want to go to yesterday was basically a depression in a flat that just can’t handle a lot of pressure. I sort of figured something out down lake, so I wanted to go down lake again (yesterday) and try to save that spot for the last day of the event.
“I started on that spot this morning and caught about 17 1/2-pounds by 9:00. That allowed me to just chill out and relax and get in a rhythm. Catching a good limit allows you to fish to your true potential, calm down, and make decisions that you might not be able to.”
Wheeler on the rest of his day on Sunday after boxing over 17-pounds by 9:00:
“I ran down lake and pulled up on a little swimbait hole that was basically a ledge with some shell and hard bottom. The key to getting those fish to bite was that you actually had to come in on top of the ledge, cast out, let the bait fall down to 20 feet, and bring the bait up the ledge into 15 (feet). They would eat it when the bait got to the top.
“I caught two more there and culled a couple out. Then I stopped at another place and caught one – I think that I ended up catching 14 keepers today.”
Wheeler on when he entertained thoughts of winning:
“It wasn’t until the last fish that I culled. It was a 4.80 and I culled out a 2.70. At that point, I knew that (Herren) would have to consistently catch 22- to 23-pounds and I knew that would be tough to do four days in a row. Herren was the most consistent angler by far in the field and he was catching 22- to 23-pounds a day. I knew that he would have to do it again when I caught that fish. I knew that I had a chance, but I still just didn’t know.
Wheeler’s primary baits and equipment:
- ¾ oz. VMC Ike Approved Swimbait Jig Head
- 6” Basstrix Paddle Tail Swimbait (Tennessee Shad)
- Rapala DT20 (Disco Shad)
- ½-ounce hair jig (homemade)
- 14 lb. test Sufix Invisiline 100% Fluorocarbon (used with hair jig and swimbait)
- 7’3” Okuma Scott Martin’s TCS Heavy Action Rod (used with hair jig)
- 7.0:1 Okuma Helios Air Casting Reel (used with hair jig)
- 7’11” Okuma Heavy Action Rod (used with swimbait)
- 6.6:1 Okuma Helios TCS Casting Reel (used with swimbait)
- 7’11” Okuma Scott Martin’s TCS Power Crank Medium/Heavy Action Rod (used with crankbait)
Wheeler on the importance of his baits and equipment:
“When the fish won’t bite anything else, a lot of the times they’ll bite that (hair jig) if they’re eating big gizzard shad because it looks like a big shad. The hair flattens out when it’s in the water and it looks like a big gizzard shad running around.
“When I was throwing the swimbait, I think that the slower 6.6:1 gear ration reel was really important. The key was getting the bait on the bottom and it was difficult to keep it down there with a 7:1 reel. The 6.6:1 allowed me to keep the bait on the bottom and get the bites that I might not have gotten.”
Wheeler on what the last three years have been like:
“It’s been crazy, to say the least. Things like this just don’t happen to people and it’s unheard of in this sport. You don’t just come in and do well and win events – it just doesn’t happen. I was 20 when I fished the All-American, 21 when I won the Cup, and I’m 23 now. It’s just been an unbelievable last four years and I’m still in that ‘pinch me’ mode. It’s going to take me a while to get over this one.”
2nd Place: Kevin VanDam (22-9, 22-14, 15-13, 23-8: 84-12)
VanDam on his overall performance this week:
“It's always easy to second guess yourself after the fact, and that is just the way things go. You try to make the best decisions based on the information you have and the conditions that are right in front of you. You have to be aware of the current whenever you are fishing a TVA lake, because the fish are so dependent on it.
My goal was to go catch five big ones each day, and I came close but wasn't able to do it. Overall, I think the first BASSFest was a great success, and it is great to come to a town and an area of the country where the people appreciate the sport. Dayton should be really proud of how they handled all the traffic and people that came out to support the event, I hope we come back soon."
VanDam on difference between Chickamauga and other TVA fisheries:
“I think the terrain on this lake is much different than any of the other lakes I have fished on the Tennessee River.
"The lake has a lot of areas on the map that look like they would be absolutely terrific, but they end up not holding the fish. I think there isn't nearly as much hard bottom on this lake as there is on other TVA fisheries, so those fish look for that even more than on other lakes."
VanDam on taking advantage of the active schools of fish:
"Every day, you had a small window open up that you needed to take advantage of. It isn't like other TVA lakes where you are catching 100 fish and sorting through the smaller ones to cull up to a good bag. Here, the average size is a lot better but the numbers are just not the same."
VanDam’s primary baits and equipment:
-Strike King Denny Brauer Structure Jig 3/4 oz. (Green Pumpkin/Purple)
-Strike King Rage Craw (Plum Crazy)
-Strike King Rage Thumper Worm
-Strike King Swing Head Jig
-Quantum Exo Rod 7'6" MH
-Quantum Tour KVD Reel 7:3:1
3rd Place: Matt Herren (22-7, 21-7, 23-6, 16-11: 83-15)
Herren on his overall performance this week:
“I had a great tournament here this week. I adjusted well, and changed with the conditions and the fish every day. I thought I had a winning game plan here this week, based on the current. Kevin and Jacob both struggled yesterday when they didn't have any current, and they never run water here on the weekend, especially on Sunday.
"Today for some reason they decided to run the water. The other guys got the current that they needed and that just didn't work out for me."
Herren on his primary pattern:
“I was keeping it really basic here this week. It was all about location this week for me and fishing the right stuff based on whether they were running current.
"The first two days I fished my deeper stuff because they were running the water. The final two days I was catching them good around the shade created by the docks. When I realized they were pulling current today, I went back out to my deep school but could never get them to bite. I thought I had left them alone enough that I could go back and catch them again, but evidently that wasn't the case."
Herren's primary baits and equipment:
-Reaction Innovations Flirt Worm
-Reaction Innovations Big Unit
-Reaction Innovations Twerk Trailer
-Santone Lures M Series Jig
-Santone Lures Piglet
4th Place: Gerald Swindle (15-5, 22-11, 17-11, 18-15: 74-10)
Swindle on his overall thoughts on Lake Chickamauga this week:
“I made a comment to Kevin Short prior to the start of this event when we were doing our tackle in the campground that there were so many guys focused on the offshore bite that I thought you could win this thing shallow. It crossed my mind that if enough of the field stayed offshore that you had a chance to win with the shallow bite. As the tournament progressed, and guys started to figure out that some good fish were still shallow you started to see more and more guys pulling over to the banks. The fishing was so hard up shallow though, that I really think a lot of people got burnt out trying to do it, because it was that hard to get those bites."
Swindle on his primary pattern:
"I was basically skipping docks the entire tournament with that small finesse jig. The key was to fish the bait all the way back to the boat. It would get to the point that you thought you were wasting your time and that is when you would get the bite. Most of my bigger bites were right on the end of the docks, or where there was a little edge created by the milfoil. I really think those bigger fish were just sitting out there using that edge as an ambush point."
Swindle on sticking to his strengths this week:
"I've got a little saying I have been living by this season. It is that you need to do what you know, and you need to know what you are doing. The big talk this week was all about how the offshore bite was the deal, and that is very tempting, but I have got to stick to what I know and so far it is working out."
Swindle's primary baits and equipment:
-3/8 oz BOOYAH Finesse Jig
-Zoom Z-Hog Jr Trailer
-Quantum EXO Rod 7'4" MH
-Quantum Tour MG Reel (6:3:1)
5th Place: Brett Hite (19-2, 18-15, 16-4, 17-0: 71-5)
Hite on his primary pattern:
“I was primarily focusing on little pockets that had steeper banks with grass in them. I think the fish I was catching were mostly resident fish. My key this week was being versatile and mixing it up between the deep and shallow bite.
"The deeper fish I was catching on the dropshot and big worm, and the shallow fish were on the Chatterbait. Having the option to mix it up let me move around and avoid a lot of the pressure and the crowds."
Hite on his final day on Lake Chickamauga:
"I ended up catching two today that I weighed in shallow, and the rest were out deeper. It was definitely a much tougher day out there for me today. I saved a few spots that I waited until today to hit, and that was really the key. The community spots that I had were just not working for me. Those fish are just so pressured and have gotten so smart that they are just really hard to catch."
Hite's primary baits:
-Gary Yamamoto Senko
-Gary Yamamoto Kut Tail Worm
-Gary Yamamoto Swimming Senko
-Unnamed Swim Jig
|Place||Name||Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4||Total Fish||Total Weight|
|1||Jacob Wheeler||5||22- 6||5||29-13||4||16- 2||5||22- 1||19||90- 6|
|2||Kevin VanDam||5||22- 9||5||22-14||4||15-13||5||23- 8||19||84-12|
|3||Matthew Herren||5||22- 7||5||21- 7||5||23- 6||5||16-11||20||83-15|
|4||Gerald Swindle||5||15- 5||5||22-11||5||17-11||5||18-15||20||74-10|
|5||Brett Hite||5||19- 2||5||18-15||5||16- 4||5||17- 0||20||71- 5|
|6||Greg Hackney||5||20- 5||5||24- 8||5||13-10||4||12- 5||19||70-12|
|7||Casey Ashley||5||16- 1||5||17- 7||5||21- 3||5||15- 4||20||69-15|
|8||Terry Scroggins||5||19- 7||5||17-11||5||19- 2||5||13- 3||20||69- 7|
|9||Luke Clausen||5||15- 8||5||16-10||5||20- 4||5||15-11||20||68- 1|
|10||Russ Lane||5||14- 3||5||20-14||5||18-10||4||13- 2||19||66-13|
|11||Jason Williamson||5||21- 3||5||17-10||5||14- 8||5||11- 9||20||64-14|
|12||Hank Cherry||5||13-13||5||21- 0||5||18- 5||4||8- 8||19||61-10|